The Myth of Neutrality

Back in high school, I had two teachers who often spoke on political matters, but there was a big difference between their approaches:

The first teacher taught English, and he told us openly on the first day of class, “I’m a bleeding heart liberal, but I will always do my best to respect your convictions. I’m also an atheist and take a lot of issue with Christianity, but I will always do my best to respect your beliefs.”

The other teacher taught Government, and she was careful to tell us on the first day of class, “Because we will talk politics so much in this class, I choose to keep my personal beliefs out of it. I want to leave room for all viewpoints, and you will likely never know my political affiliation.”

Initially, I was more impressed with the Government teacher. It felt like she was making more of an effort at hospitality, while the English teacher was perhaps a little more out there. I wondered how my English teacher would respond to my views, but I had little worry about my Government teacher thanks to her declaration of neutrality.

I was wrong. By the end of the semester, my opinions of them completely reversed.

Sure, my Government teacher might have intended to table her opinions, but every time I expressed my views in class (particularly when I criticized trickle-down economics), she made a counterpoint and would not budge. More frustrating still, her counterpoints were always anecdotal and revolved around her own experience rather than larger societal trends or data– definitely not appropriate for a Government class. It turned out her attempt at neutrality was a mask for deeply held convictions she wanted her students to share, and when we expressed conflicting views, her agitation was visible. It wasn’t a safe space for debate.

My openly atheist English teacher, on the other hand, wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, but when students disagreed with him, he thanked them for doing so. He openly admitted when he hadn’t considered a perspective, and he encouraged students to pursue new lines of thinking (whether he agreed with them or not). His class became an open forum where I was comfortable exploring and growing, and though we still disagreed on numerous issues at the end of the course, I respected his ability to hear out views that opposed his own. Though he was outspoken with his views, in his classroom, all of us were safe.

I bring up these two teachers because they illustrate an important point about real conversation:

If you go into a situation attempting total neutrality,
if you deny your inherent biases and try to set yourself up as perfectly objective,
you will fail,
your views will slip out,
your biases will emerge unconsciously,
and you will invite the resentment of those to whom you claimed to be neutral.

if you go into a situation admitting bias and ignorance,
if you acknowledge your opinion but express a willingness to hear the views of others,
you have nowhere to go but up,
your views will still slip out (but in a healthy way),
people will be prepared to hear your biases,
and it will make your ability to listen to dissenting views that much more impressive.

Don’t pretend to be neutral. We’re all starting from somewhere, and it’s far harder to table our biases than we realize. Acting neutral just means our thoughts seep out subconsciously or passive-aggressively, and there are few better ways to shut down a conversation. Instead, just be open. If you model openness, others will know they can be open as well, and then the real conversation can begin.

21768310_494954157526569_9020065286238571321_nOver the next month, we’ll be building up momentum for our Brew Theology launch, and the whole program hinges on sharing openly and disagreeing lovingly. I’m looking forward to this new way to connect and converse in a healthy and holy way!

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